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BTO: Our festive bird is not always nice

Robin. Picture by BTO/Ian Wilson ANL-141218-142101001
Robin. Picture by BTO/Ian Wilson ANL-141218-142101001

Thanks to some clever marketing by the Post Office, the robin remains very much the bird of the festive season.

The image of this cheerful and friendly bird, found adorning a range of seasonal gifts and Christmas cards, doesn’t really reflect its true nature, at least as far as interactions with other robins are concerned.

The winter months are of crucial importance. As with other birds, males and females work together as a pair to maintain a territory in which to feed and raise their young. The pair splits up at the end of the breeding season but each robin then establishes its own territory, a behaviour that remains rather uncommon in other birds. This winter territory is important, sustaining the bird by providing access to food, which can be otherwise hard to find at this time of the year.

While displays of ownership often resolve themselves quickly through much strutting about, puffing out of the red breast feathers and territorial song, robins have been known to defend their patch vehemently and even fight to the death. During the winter months, it is dangerous to expend energy in this way and so we see an increase in social tolerance of other birds particularly around feeders and bird tables. On the subject of song, robins are one of the few species of bird that can be heard singing throughout the winter months, alongside the occasional wren or dunnock.

Late winter is a difficult time for many birds with low temperatures, short daylight hours for feeding and a lack of available food in the wider countryside. Data from the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden BirdWatch scheme (www.bto.org/gbw) show robins make greatest use of Suffolk gardens during January, the birds attracted to regular supplies of high-energy foods. Robins have large eyes in relation to their body size and this is thought to help them find food during the low light conditions of a winter day.

Robins are ubiquitous in Britain with an estimated 13 million individuals totalling a combined mass greater than that of the Statue of Liberty! Not every individual is the same however, with the BTO’s Abnormal Plumage Survey revealing them to be the seventh most commonly seen bird with aberrant plumage, behind the likes of blackbird and house sparrow. Flicking through the gallery of images on the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch website, it is comical to see a robin found in a Derbyshire garden sporting a white ‘Santa-Claus’ beard!

The robin’s strategy for surviving the winter, based on a feeding territory but with greater tolerance of other robins around shared feeding opportunities, makes a lie of the old rhyme “The North wind doth blow and we shall have snow and what will poor robin do then, poor thing? He’ll sit in a barn and keep himself warm and hide his head under his wing, poor thing.”